Of all aspects of linguistic reconstruction, semantic reconstruction is perhaps the most vexing. Where the meanings of cognates are nearly uniform, there is not much to discuss; but where meanings differ widely, or where they appear to incorporate unrelated concepts, the challenge of determining an original sense can be considerable. Proto-Malayo-Polynesian (PMP) *suku illustrates the second of these problems. In Malay, the meanings 'ethnic group' and 'quarter' are given as variant senses of one and the same term, suku. In closely related Minangkabau, suku is more clearly a descent group, and ethnic traditions speak of there being four suku as the foundation of the Minangkabau people. No attested society or language in isolation provides a clear idea of what PMP *suku meant, but comparative linguistic and cultural data from languages in both Sumatra and eastern Indonesia support an inference that PMP society was organized around patrilineal lineages that were related through a system of asymmetric alliance. In this system, lineage A was wife-giver to lineage B, B to C, C to D, and D to A. Together, the four *suku constituted a complete society linked by marital alliance and each *suku was a quarter of the total social 'organism'.


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pp. 247-256
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